Talks aimed at freeing the seized Ukrainian cargo ship carrying tanks and other arms have kicked off as warships from the United States and other navies have barricaded the MV Faina off the coastal region of Somalia, according to Xinhua.

    Andrew Mwangura, coordinator of the East Africa`s Seafarers Assistance Program, said on Wednesday the negotiations started between the ship owners and the pirates in a bid to free the military hardware whose ownership remains unknown.

    "Telephone contacts have started between the Somali pirates and the ship owners. As things stand, it seems the talks may take long since the ransom demand is too high," Mwangura told Xinhua by telephone.

The Somali pirates, who seized the MV Faina with its 21-man crew and 33 T-72 battle tanks last Thursday, said they are under 24-hour surveillance from the U.S. ships and helicopters.

    There are 20 crew on board after one Russian died of illness. Most of the crew are Ukrainians, with two Russians and one Latvian.

    The gunmen have demanded 20 million U.S. dollars to release the MV Faina which is owned and operated by Kaalbye Shipping Ukraine, and its crew includes citizens of Ukraine, Russia and Latvia.

    U.S. officials said the ship is still being surrounded by three small boats of pirates while sailing 250 miles (about 400 km) off the coast of Somalia.

    The latest hijackings are part of a surge of daring maritime attacks off the coast of Somalia, a war-torn country that has been without a functioning government since 1991.

    There were reports that at least 100 pirates from the dreaded Somalia Youth Coast Guard were in control of the Faina, which is sailing under a Belize flag.

    Pirates have seized dozens of ships near Somali coast in recent months.